What I Did For Love - Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
 
Indifference is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don't stand a chance against it.
 
Joan Vinge
 
Ranger? What the hell was he doing here? And ohhhhhh, was he pissed! He sat slouched in a chair with his legs crossed and fingers steepled, blank face securely in place. Anybody who didn't know him would think he was relaxed. Ha! His glittering black eyes hooded, his nostrils flared, he sat like a tightly coiled spring ready to explode out of the chair, and all that heat and anger was directed at me. Oh joy!
 
Just the expression on his face was enough to make me forget how to breathe, and I don't mean that in a good way. This was the look that made grown men wet their pants, and I had to fight the urge to look at the floor to see if I was standing in a puddle.

 
Fight or flight survival instinct kicked in, and since no way could I win a physical fight with Ranger, I figured flight was my best bet. As much as I wanted to make a mad dash for the door, though, I stood my ground. Okay, so maybe it was more like I was frozen to the spot, but I didn't run. Actually, now that I think about it, it was more like I couldn't run. My eyes were riveted to his and I started feeling a little … woozy. Neither of us moved or even blinked. It was kinda like one of those National Geographic specials where the cute, innocent little bunny is hypnotized by the big, bad, evil cobra. Yeah. Guess which one I was!
 
A million reasons for Ranger to be sitting there swirled through my head. None of them good for me. I always had the feeling that he could read my mind, so maybe he had figured out that Joe wanted me to turn him in? Maybe he thought I could really do that? Maybe he was here to stop me? Maybe he was here to do damage control? After all, there was no possible way that he could know what I really planned to do, right? Nobody knew, so nobody could rat me out.
 
Finally, somebody cleared their throat. "Miss Plum," Detective Rinaldi said as he stood up from his desk. "Miss Plum. What can we do for you?"
 
"Huh?" It took every iota of determination I had to tear my eyes away from Ranger's, and I shook my head to clear it while I tried to recover my composure. Squaring my shoulders, I pulled myself up to my full 5'7", plus heels, took a deep breath, and turned to Rinaldi. "I need to talk to you." I looked from him to Malfitano and back again. "Privately," I added firmly, very pointedly ignoring Ranger.
 
Not that Ranger was ignoring me, of course. I swear I could feel his eyes boring into my back, willing me to turn around and look at him again. But, nope, that wasn't gonna happen. His Jedi mind control tricks weren't gonna work on me! Not again! I looked anyplace but in his direction. I came into this office knowing what I needed to do, and by God, I was gonna do it! No way was I gonna let him freak me out.
 
"I'll just wait outside until Mr. Manoso leaves," I said helpfully, and started to turn toward the door. It seemed that I had all the courage in the world … as long as I didn't look at Ranger.
 
The two cops exchanged a quick glance and shrugged, then Rinaldi came around his desk and took my arm. "That's all right Miss Plum. Our business is finished and Mr. Manoso was just leaving," and he steered me over to a guest chair in front of Malfitano's desk. "Weren't you?" He directed at Ranger.
 
It was like the air pressure in the room changed. I felt, rather than saw, Ranger shove himself up out of the chair in the small office and my heart stuttered in my chest. That little tingle I always felt when he was near turned into a jolt of electricity that shot down my spine. Right now, it felt an awful lot like fear. He took a step toward me, standing so close behind me that I could practically feel his heartbeat against my back. "Stephanie," his was voice low and tight. "We need to talk. Now!" He closed his hand on my shoulder and tried to guide me toward the door.
 
I don't know where I got the courage, but I yanked myself away from his grip. Without turning around, I snapped, "I can't imagine what you have to say that I want to hear, Ranger. Just go away and leave me alone!" Holding my head high, I went over and sat in the guest chair in front of Malfitano's desk. That'll show him! He wasn't going to intimidate me!
 
I didn't even glance in his direction, just crossed my legs and folded my hands over the purse in my lap. I was trying for nonchalant, but the silence was deafening and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ranger's hands clenching and unclenching. He leaned down and growled in my ear, "Suit yourself, Stephanie," then, turning on his heel, he stalked out of the office. I think that's when I started breathing again.
 
"Thank you. I will," I called after him. Snotty, I know, but I actually got in the last word. That's something, right?
 
Malfitano strolled over and closed the door. "Sure as hell not somebody I want mad at me," he snorted. Rinaldi grunted in agreement. I just stayed quiet.
 
"You wanna tell us what that was all about?" Malfitano prompted as he came back to his desk and sat down in his chair.
 
I shook my head slowly. "Nope. Personal issues."
 
"Lovers' quarrel? You two got a little somethin' going on? Oh, that's right," he smirked. "You're Morelli's piece. You two playing hide the salami behind Morelli's back?" He chuckled and I gave him my best Burg death glare. I really wanted to just smack that lecherous sneer right off of his stupid face. The guy made my skin crawl.
 
Rinaldi shot him a warning look, then turned to me. "So Ms. Plum, what can we do for you?" he asked pleasantly.
 
I took a deep breath; this was it, no turning back now. I sat up straighter in my chair and gripped my purse with both hands … finally I just blurted out, "I … I have some information about Abruzzi's … death … that you need to know." The words just tumbled out of my mouth.
 
"You don't say," Malfitano cracked wise, all but rolling his eyes at Rinaldi. He tipped the desk chair back, kicked his feet up on his desk, crossed his ankles, and folded his hands over his stomach. I guess I was lucky he didn't scratch his balls in front of me, too. He gave a huge yawn and waved a hand at me. "So, why don't you tell us what it is you think we need to know? Hurry up, I can hardly wait!" God! I hated that man!
 
Rinaldi pulled the other guest chair closer to mine and sat down next to me. While Malfitano acted like an ***, there was nothing snide or sarcastic about Rinaldi. He leaned in toward me and laid a hand on my arm. "Just take your time and tell us in your own way." He shot a look at Malfitano, hopefully signaling him to shut the hell up.
 
I flicked a glance at him and nodded, struggling to take in a deep breath. There seemed to be this elephant sitting on my chest. I licked my dry lips and started. "I know that Joe Morelli didn't kill Abruzzi."
 
"Oh Jeeez! Gimme a ******' br…" Malfitano started to say, but Rinaldi held up his hand and the other cop went silent. "And how do you know that?" he asked gently.
 
"Because I know who did kill him." I looked Rinaldi square in the eye so he'd know I was being honest. After all, I did know who killed Abruzzi. Not that I was gonna share that info with him, of course.
 
"And that would be … who? Napoleon? Your granny? Batman?" Malfitano asked with a snort.
 
I have to admit that the 'Batman' thing rattled me a little. I swallowed hard and looked at Rinaldi, not quite meeting his eyes this time. "Me," I kind of choked on the word. "It was me." My voice still wavered when I said it. I looked down at my lap and tried to blink away the tears I could feel welling up in my eyes. Dammit! I couldn't wimp out and start to cry now!
 
"You did it. You killed Abruzzi," Malfitano barked out a laugh and scrubbed his hands over his face. "****! This sounds like a game of Clue … Miss Plum in the bedroom with a *****!" He threw his head back and cackled at his own stupid joke.
 
Okay, so that dried my tears right up! What an ***!
 
"Knock it off!" Rinaldi snapped at him. "Ms. Plum … Stephanie, did Morelli ask you to come here today? Did he force you, threaten you in some way to get you to confess so he'd be off the hook?" Sympathy and understanding practically dripped off Rinaldi. "Tell us the truth and let us help you. We can protect you, keep you safe."
 
"No! NO! Joe doesn't have any idea that I came here to confess." I looked from one of them to the other. "I'm responsible for Abruzzi's death; Joe had nothing to do with it."
 
"Then why didn't you come forward when it happened, huh? Why'd you wait so long?" Malfitano demanded.
 
"I know I should have. But I was scared! I mean, the guy was dead, but I was terrified that his men would come after me, or my family, for revenge or something. They didn't have any problems with stalking and threatening and kidnapping and torturing me on Abruzzi's orders. I didn't know how loyal they'd be to him, even if he was dead."
 
They sat there, wearing their cop faces, and studied me. I just kept right on babbling though. It was like I couldn't stop myself.
 
"I wasn't thinking. I was running on pure adrenaline. And when Joe told me that the cops thought Abruzzi committed suicide, I can't tell you how relieved I was! I thought if they thought that it was suicide, well, there wasn't any crime, and if there wasn't any crime … well, there wasn't anything to confess to. Was there? I mean he was a bad man who did terrible things to people. Not that he deserved to die and all, but I was scared, and it was an accident, and I didn't mean to do it and … and …" I finally wound down, thank God.
 
Rinaldi ran his hand over his face. "So what made you decide to come in now and confess? We questioned you weeks ago, and you denied knowing anything about Abruzzi's death."
 
I shrugged and held out my hands, palms up. "Look, I admit it. I didn't want to go to jail. But that was before you started looking at Joe for this."
 
"So you came in because Morelli is on the top of our short list?" Rinaldi said with a weary sigh.
 
"It wouldn't matter who it was. I'd still be here. I couldn't live with myself if I let somebody else take the blame for me."
 
"Okay, okay" Rinaldi sighed as he rubbed his chin. "Are you prepared to make a formal statement … an admission that you committed this crime?"
 
"Yes," I rasped, my throat suddenly dry.
 
Malfitano took his feet off the desk and went to see if there was an empty interview room, leaving me alone with Rinaldi. As soon as the door closed Rinaldi reached over and covered my hand with his.
 
"Stephanie, do you understand what this confession means?" he asked me kindly. "You're gonna be arrested and charged and brought to trial and probably sent to prison. The DA could decide to charge you with first degree murder. If you're convicted, you could spend the rest of your life behind bars." He waited a few beats, then added, "Right now, there's no official record of anything you told us," he said softly. "You can still just get up and walk out of here."
 
If Rinaldi was trying to scare me, he was doing a damn good job of it. My stomach was rolling and I was queasy, but I had no choice, I had to go through with this. My only other option was to let Joe or Ranger face those consequences he was talking about. And that was something I just couldn't do, wouldn't do. I didn't answer him, just nodded and fished in my purse for a tissue to wipe away the tears that had escaped.
 
"I can't let Joe, or anybody else, take the blame," I told him. I didn't tell him that the 'anybody else' was Ranger.
 
"Are you sure he's so innocent?" Rinaldi squeezed my hand.
 
"Yeah, I'm sure," was the only thing I could say, because I was.
 
Malfitano came back in and escorted me to an interview room. It was a good thing that he was holding my arm so tightly. My knees were so weak that if he hadn't been, I think I probably would have wound up on the floor. He had me sit in the chair facing the big mirror on the wall. I knew there would be a camera behind the mirror that would be taping my confession. Probably a whole bunch of people watching, too. Oh goody, an audience.
 
Rinaldi came in and handed me a bottle of water. "Last chance, Stephanie. You wanna call it off and go home?"
 
I just shook my head. Malfitano tossed a thick manila folder on the table and turned it so that I could see my name printed in red magic marker on the cover. I guess that was supposed to shake me up. Not a real difficult thing to do right about now.
 
Malfitano sat across from me, Rinaldi beside him. Just like they did on TV, they arranged themselves so that the camera would have a clear view of all three of us. I waited nervously while the two cops pulled out their recorders and went through the routine of identifying themselves and 'stating for the record' that I had come in voluntarily to make a statement. Rinaldi informed me that I wasn't under arrest, not yet at any rate, and read me my rights.
 
He said something about self-incrimination and I almost laughed out loud. Here he was warning me about incriminating myself, and I couldn't wait to tell them that I was guilty.
 
"You ready?" and when I nodded, he said, "Okay, tell you what. Why don't you just start at the beginning and tell us the whole story?" Rinaldi sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. Malfitano tipped his chair back and put his hands behind his head. He looked bored to death and about to fall asleep.
 
I took sip of water and cleared my throat. I kept reminding myself that this was the easy part. Because it was all true and I didn't have to make up anything, I could pretty much just relax and tell the story. Oh yeah, some easy part all right! As it was, every nerve ending I owned felt like it was outside my skin and if I could just have thrown up, I know I would've felt a whole lot better.
 
So anyway, they heard all about Mabel Markowitz, and Evelyn and Annie Soder, and Abruzzi's men, and the snakes, and the spiders, and the guy in the rabbit suit, and dead Steven Soder on my couch, and the kidnapping, and the torture. All of it … all over again. It was pretty much the same version they heard when they had hauled me in for questioning back when I was their prime suspect. Rinaldi sat with his chin in his hand, listening to my story. On the other hand, Malfitano's eyes were rolled so far back in his head that I was waiting for him to pass out. Okay, so I guess I was hoping he would pass out and fall on the floor and crack his head open.
 
If telling the truth was hard, telling the fictional stuff was just plain hell. I mean, it was all just one big lie and I was sure they were gonna know. They were cops, right? They were trained to sniff out liars. What the hell ever made me think I could get away with this? My head had started to ache even before I walked into the State Building and now it was splitting. My voice was shaking and my heart pounded so hard I was convinced the two cops could hear it, plus, I still felt like I was going to throw up. So much for bravery!
 
Anyway, I just forged ahead. I started telling them about Abruzzi calling me while I was in the emergency room and I almost jumped out of my skin when Malfitano brought the front legs of his chair down to the floor with a loud thump. Suddenly he started paying real close attention to what I was saying, watching me while I talked. I really don't know how actors do it. I mean, I tried to sound convincing and not stumble over the words, but I had to be careful not to sound too rehearsed either. Actually, I really didn't have to worry about any of that. Even to my own ears, all I sounded was scared shitless, which I was.
 
Neither of the cops said anything, just scribbled lots of notes and exchanged 'meaningful' looks while I talked. A couple of times Malfitano would flip through the manila folder and pull out a page. He'd circle something and pass it to Rinaldi. Sometimes Rinaldi would write something back; sometimes he'd nod and just turn the paper face down on the table.
 
I was explaining to them how I snuck out of Morelli's house and went to the Farmer's Market parking lot. Where I got the gun I took with me. How Abruzzi threatened me and tried to attack me. How we grappled for the gun and how it went off. I told them how I panicked and went to the bonds office and made up the suicide note. About going back to the car, leaving the gun and the note, and how, somehow, I got back to Morelli's.
 
"I didn't wake up until the next afternoon and that's when Joe told me that the local cops said Abruzzi had committed suicide. I tried to pretend it never happened, and I didn't say anything to anybody until today." I gave a small shrug. "That's it, that's the whole story," I said, and I watched them watch me.
 
They just stared at me with their flat cop eyes in their blank cop faces. Malfitano asked me if I'd be willing to give a DNA sample and take a polygraph test. He made a note that I said yes, then they gathered up all the papers and left, telling me that they had to check some stuff out and they'd be back. With questions, Malfitano said, lots of questions.
 
I kinda slumped back in my chair and rubbed my aching forehead. That was probably the hardest thing I had ever done in my whole life and all I wanted to do was lay down and go to sleep. Of course I knew that wasn't going to happen, at least not anytime soon. I'd have to be formally arrested, go through booking, enter my plea, then be transported to a women's correctional facility, checked in there and all that stuff.
 
At least I wouldn't have a bail hearing. You don't get bail when you plead guilty, which is what I was planning on doing. I wouldn't have been getting out on bail anyway, that's for sure. I didn't have any money or anything valuable enough to put up as collateral against the bail. I was pretty sure that Joe wouldn't have stepped up, he'd be furious with me for not handing Ranger over to Malfitano and Rinaldi. And cousin or not, Vinnie wouldn't front bail money for God Himself, much less me. And Ranger, well, let's not even go there.
 
Dammit! There were those tears again. Looked like it was pity party time. My purse was back in the cops' office, so I didn't even have a friggin' tissue to blow my nose. While I waited for them to come back, I finally let myself think about what my life was gonna be like now. There were all these things that I purposely buried so deep, I wouldn't have to deal with them. I guess I was afraid that I'd chicken out if I did. There's a good reason that denial is my friend.
 
I wondered what Joe and Ranger would think when they found out what I had done. I wondered if they'd understand why I couldn't tell them what I planned to do. I wondered if they'd realize that I did this because I loved them both. I knew Joe would be pissed that I didn't rat out Ranger, and Ranger would probably think this was a dumb move, but there was no way I could sacrifice one of them for the other. At least they'd both be free.
 
I worried about my parents and their embarrassment at having a daughter who would probably serve a life sentence for murder. Probably they'd have to move out of the Burg. I wondered if they'd forgive me for that and realize that no matter what, I loved them and didn't do this to hurt them.
 
I thought about what life in prison would be like. I became a bounty hunter so I could make my own hours and not have to wear panty hose everyday. Now I'd have somebody telling me what to do and when to do it every minute of every day for God only knew how many years. And I'd be stuck wearing the same stupid orange jumpsuit for the rest of my life.
 
The thought of never having sex again or even being hugged made my heart ache. They probably wouldn't let me have a shower massager either. The thought of playing for the other team really didn't appeal to me at all, but who knows how I'd feel about that in ten years or so. Good thing I didn't think about any of this **** beforehand. Probably I wouldn't be here now if I had. Like I said, pity party time, and this was gonna be a spectacular one!
 
I got more depressed with each minute that dragged by. I just wanted this over and done with. The minutes became an hour, then two, then three. I sat there, imagining the walls closing in on me until I was ready to scream and beat on the door. My brain finally shut down and I just put my head the table, too physically and emotionally exhausted to even cry.
 
I felt like I had been sitting there for days when the door burst open and a clearly furious Malfitano stalked in. My heart lurched in my chest, but before I could even ask what was going on, he grabbed me by the arm and hauled me up out of the chair and gave me a hard shake.
 
"What the **** did you think you were doing? You should have started that pile of **** story with 'Once upon a time' and saved us all a lot of grief! If you thought we'd swallow that load of crap fairy tale you tried to feed us, you're as stupid as you seem to think we are!"
 
Next thing I knew, he was dragging me out of the interview room and past his office where he stopped just long enough to pick up my purse and shove it into my hands.
 
"Wait! No!" I pleaded. "I confessed. I did it! I killed Abruz…"
 
"Shut up! Did you really think we wouldn't check out your story?" He bellowed at me. "Oh you're good, I'll give you that! You covered all the bases, came up with answers to all the questions … except one!" He shoved a piece of paper under my nose. "The medical report from St. Francis ER! It says right here that you were shot up with a sedative and enough pain killers to drop a horse. Maybe you dreamed the whole thing, or hallucinated it, but you sure as hell didn't kill that sick son of a *****."
 
He pushed me ahead of him all the way through the whole office, past all the cops and detectives who stopped what they were doing to watch and listen, to the main entrance of the unit. "You wanna go to jail so bad? I should charge you with interference with a police investigation, giving false evidence, obstruction of justice, wasting my time, and being a public nuisance!" he jabbed me in the shoulder as he ranted. "I should lock you up and throw away the key as a public service! And let me tell you, if I ever hear you pulled another stunt like this again, that's exactly what I will do."
 
He tore open the door and shoved me hard enough that I stumbled out into the middle of the hallway. "Maybe your Trenton cop buddies put up with your Bombshell Bounty Hunter ****, maybe they think it's cute, but this office doesn't play games! Go do something useful for a change. Go home and give Morelli a *******! You gotta be good for something!" His voice echoed through the whole floor.
 
I watched as he spun around and slammed the door behind him, too stunned to even be insulted. I must have stood there, my mouth open, staring at the closed door for two full minutes before it dawned on me that he wasn't coming back. To say that I was dazed was an understatement. Stunned, numb, dumbfounded, stupefied, gobsmacked … I was all of them. What the hell just happened here? One minute I was confessing to murder, and the next I was being tossed out on my ***.
 
More than a little dizzy, I lurched over to the wall for support. I leaned my cheek against the cool marble and closed my eyes, waiting for everything to stop spinning. My stomach rolled again and I staggered down the hall like a drunk, practically falling into the ladies' room. I made it into a stall just in the nick of time, throwing up until there was nothing left but dry heaves.
 
Unfortunately, I didn't feel any better afterward. The sore throat, aching stomach muscles and splitting head had me wanting to just curl up on the cold tile floor. Instead, I leaned over the sink rinsed my mouth and splashed some cold water on my face. I wasn't even surprised when a saw myself in the mirror … I was so pale I looked like death warmed over.
 
I sank down on a small bench and leaned my head back against the wall hoping the shakes would pass and I could get the hell out of here. I tried to remember what Malfitano had said about the report from St. Francis… something about sedatives and pain killers. I knew I had gone over every single detail at least a hundred times when I was planning my story. I had a copy of the hospital report and the doctor's notes. I knew that the only pain stuff I got at the hospital was that little local they give you so they can treat the wound. Nobody gave me any sedatives or pain meds, just a prescription for a couple of pain pills. Morelli had taken it to the hospital pharmacy and I took them just before I went to bed.
 
It took a while for reality to push its way through the fog in my brain. Son of a *****! Somebody had to have falsified that hospital report! They sabotaged my plans. I had figure out who it was, and how they found out what I was planning to do. Then I'd hunt them down and kick their *** for butting their noses in and screwing up all my hard work!
 
But I was too tired to try to figure it out now, all I wanted was go home and fall into bed. I pushed to my feet and stepped out into the hall and stopped. The entire hallway was absolutely empty and the lights had all been dimmed. It was close to midnight and most of the offices in the State Building were locked up tight. Even the AG's unit was dark. As I started toward the elevators, the click of my heels sounded like gunshots, echoing away down the hall into the darkness.
 
I mean, I knew it was silly but I found myself hurrying down the long, empty corridor, watching each door as I passed it. I couldn't shake the feeling that somebody was following me in the shadows, stalking me. I could feel their eyes on me and a trickle of fear slid down my spine. I scanned the shadows, wishing I had my gun.
 
I comforted myself with the thought that there would be an armed guard down on the desk near the front door. All city and state and federal buildings had them. All I had to do was get on the elevator and I was home free.
 
I practically ran to the end of the hall, looking over my shoulder as I turned the corner toward the bank of elevators. I could hear my own gulping breaths as I pushed the call button on every single elevator, pacing back and forth so I could dive onto the first one that opened. Naturally, that was the last one in line and I dashed through the open doors with a final glance over my shoulder at the dimly lit corridor.
 
I mashed the first floor button a dozen times before the doors started to close and I slumped against the side of the elevator in relief when they pinged shut. I watched the numbers flash as the elevator slid silently down to the first floor, and flew out of it like I had been shot out of a canon as soon as the doors opened wide enough for me to get through. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of this building and into my car. I bolted out the main entrance and streaked across the wide portico, fishing my keys out of my purse as I ran.
 
I never saw the dark shape step out from behind the column and separate itself from the shadows, or reach out to grab me as I went past, but I shrieked when I felt a hand wrap around my arm and pull me backward.
 
"Stephanie, I told you that we needed to talk!" Ranger ground out through clenched teeth and pulled me flush against him.
 
"God dammit, Ranger! You scared me!" I thumped my fist against his chest as hard as I could. Not that it did anything but hurt my hand, of course. "I told you no! I have nothing to say to you!"
 
"Well I have plenty to say to you!" He tightened his grip and started to drag me down the stairs.
 
"Cut it out! I just want to go home," I yelled and kicked at him, catching him in the calf.
 
He spun around and grabbed me by my arms, pinning them to my sides. "Stop it or I'll make you stop!"
 
"What are you gonna do," I taunted. "Hit a girl?" I lifted my chin and glared at him.
 
"Don't tempt me!" he growled and reached back to pull a pair of handcuffs from his waistband.
 
"You wouldn't!" I squeaked in outrage. The expression on his face gave me my answer. "Okay! Okay! We'll talk!"
 
Ranger 'escorted' me down the steps and out to the sidewalk where he helped me into the Porsche. I battled with the seat belt that just refused to cooperate and let itself be buckled. He reached over me to fasten it and my breath hitched as his knuckles skimmed over my breast. He froze for a second and our eyes locked as he let the backs of his fingers drift over the swell of my breast again. Butterflies fluttered low in my belly and I licked my lips as he moved his face closer to mine. My eyes slid down to his mouth and, all by itself, my head angled toward him. As furious as I was with him, he still had that effect on me. Damn him! My eyes drifted shut when his lips were a breath away from mine.
 
Growling low in his chest, he pulled away from me, turned the key and slammed the car into gear, sending it tearing away from the curb and down the dark street. There wasn't another car on the road. It was like the Porsche owned the city. We streaked across town, gears shifting, engine screaming like a wild animal. He drove like a madman, ignoring stop signs and red lights until we roared into the garage at RangeMan, missing the slow moving security gate by less than an inch. The tires screeched as we slid into his parking spot, Ranger braking so hard that I was thrown first forward against the seat belt and then slammed back against the seat, knocking what little breath I had right out of me.
 
I sat slumped in my seat, my heart in my throat, breathless and stunned, head spinning. Ranger threw the door open and without a word, pulled me out of the car, half dragging, half carrying me to the elevator. He kept his hand wrapped around my arm and I wondered if he thought I was going to make a break for it and rabbit. The fact that I could barely walk, much less run, had obviously escaped him.
 
He kept a firm grip on me all the way up to the seventh floor and into the penthouse. Once the door was closed and locked, he let me go and turned on the lights, tossing his keys into the silver dish on the sideboard. I took a few stumbling steps down the hall and sagged against the archway to the living room, too spent to go any farther. I heard him go into the dining room, the clink of crystal, and the splash of liquid pouring.
 
He strode over to me and wrapped my hand around a glass. I could smell the brandy. "Drink it!" he ordered. "You look like you're ready to pass out."
 
That actually sounded like a pretty good idea, I thought, and shook my head, no, trying to hand the glass back to him.
 
"Drink it or I'll pour it down your throat!" The tone of his voice told me he would, too.
 
I was too tired to fight and just lifted the glass to take a sip. He put a finger under the glass and tipped it up, so that the entire contents spilled into my mouth. Liquid fire scorched its way down to my stomach and I choked and coughed, trying to catch my breath. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and shoved the glass back at him. "Happy now, jerk?" I spat.
 
He grunted and emptied his own glass. I watched as he stalked into the living room, took off his suit jacket and tossed it over the back of the couch. His tie followed, and he unbuttoned his cuffs, turning up the sleeves over his forearms. He didn't look at me, just paced the room with that same pent up energy he had in the cops' office, like he was ready to spring at any moment.
 
I was barely able to stay on my feet, but I was sure that if I sat down, I'd immediately conk out. Okay, time to beard the lion in his den. "Ranger, you're the one who wanted to talk, so talk."
 
He stopped pacing and slowly turned to look at me, cool indifference on his face, but his eyes ... that's where the heat was. He looked like he could eat me alive. I shivered as he took a step toward me.
 
"Just what the hell did you think you were doing today, Stephanie?" he demanded. He held up his hand, "And don't play stupid, you know damned good and well what I'm talking about."
 
I blew out a sigh and shrugged. "I was playing Ricardo Carlos Manoso. I was doing what I thought was best for everybody involved," I said wearily and rubbed my aching forehead.
 
"So … what? You thought it would be a good idea to offer yourself up as the sacrificial lamb? To be some kind of martyr?" He ground out, standing with his hands clenched by his sides, waves of anger radiating off of him.
 
My second wind hit me like a slap. Anger'll do that for you. "You hypocrite!" I shot back at him. "You're the man who walked into my apartment and let Scrogg shoot you to save Julie and me! Don't you dare give me any crap about sacrificial lambs! You've got the corner on that market!"
 
"That was an entirely different situation, and you know it, Stephanie. There were no other options!" he threw back at me.
 
"Options, Ranger? What were my other options? What was I supposed to do? You have all the answers, you tell me," I raged at him. "Am I supposed to let Joe go to jail for this? Or should I go with Joe's solution and convinced Rinaldi and Malfitano that you did it, airtight alibi or not?" I didn't wait for him to answer, just kept right on going, baiting the tiger. "Who was I supposed to throw under the bus, Ranger, huh? Which one of you was I supposed to sacrifice?"
 
"So you decided you'd sacrifice yourself, and that'd make it all better? That's just brilliant!" The sarcasm dripped off his words.
 
"I asked you for help and instead I got another deal. What kind of a game are you playing with me? I need to know the rules! I told you I'd pay your price …" I stopped ranting as it finally hit me. "Oh my God! That's it, isn't it? The deal! You want me to accept the deal." I started to laugh. "Is that it? Me in your bed? Is that all it takes?" Hysterical laughter bubbled up out of me until I had to hold onto the wall to keep from falling on the floor.
 
"Stephanie, stop," he ordered, like a man who was used to being obeyed. Did I listen, oh hell, NO!
 
"Hell, I sold myself to you before. No biggie. I can play ***** again!" I choked out, laughter gone, replaced by fury. I yanked open my suit jacket, sending the buttons flying, and dragged it off, throwing it on the floor. "Let's go! What are you waiting for?" I kicked off my shoes and they skidded across the room. Ranger watched me haul my sweater off over my head and toss it on a chair as I moved toward the bedroom door. "Well, come on! This is what you want isn't it? Come and get it!"
 
"Stephanie," he thundered, taking another step toward me. If I hadn't been so caught up in my own rage I would have known that Ranger's precious control had slipped and the man I had known and trusted was gone. I didn't know this one, closer to animal than human. Head down, eyes glittering, lips parted, he stalked me across the room. If I had been in my right mind I would have run for my life.
 
But I didn't know who I was either. All the weeks of fear and fury just exploded out of me. "Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. You want a slave?" I spat. "You want me on my knees? You want me to beg you to **** me? What? Just tell me! I'm all yours!" I pulled the bra straps down my arms and reached back to unhook it.
 
Before I could get it undone, he was across the room and on me in, grabbing me and lifting me off my feet. I screamed as he slammed me back into the wall, his weight pinning me almost eye to eye with him. "I said stop it!" he roared at me as I fought against him, clawing and kicking, biting and scratching like some wild thing I never knew I had in me.
 
He tried to pin my hands as I beat on him, and I sank my teeth into his shoulder, the taste of his blood filling my mouth. I wanted … no, I needed … to inflict as much pain on him as he had caused me. I punched and slapped at him, wanted him to hurt like I did, to have his gut twist like mine, and I battled him with everything I had in me. Twisting and shoving, we slid down the wall to roll and grapple on the floor.
 
His fingers were tangled in my hair, my hands gripped his shirt, my skirt had ridden up and he was lying between my bare legs. We were face to face, panting, our eyes locked and in those seconds, rage was replaced by something else entirely. He growled deep in his chest and his mouth came down, almost brutally, on mine. We fed on each other like we were starving, all teeth and tongue.
 
There was nothing sweet or romantic between us. This was feral … wild! I ripped at his shirt, the buttons skittering across the floor, then slid my hands down to stroke his hard, pulsing length while I worked to open his belt. He ran his hand up my bare leg to touch me through the wet silk of my panties before he tore them off me. I had a hunger I'd never known before and I was sure he felt it too. We were desperate with the need to mate and I was lost in the feel and smell and taste of him.
 
From somewhere on the other side of the room, my cell phone rang and the cold reality of what I was doing washed over me like ice water. Ranger must have felt it too, because he took a deep, shuddering breath and rolled off of me. I just lay there, gasping in shock, and more than a little shame. The breaths I dragged in became huge, wracking sobs and I curled up, covering my face with my hands as tears streamed down my cheeks.
 
Without a word, Ranger spooned me, holding me until I calmed down. He gently pulled the bra straps back up my arms and when I finally stopped crying, he stood up, taking me with him. He picked up my sweater and helped me put it on, then brought me my shoes and jacket. I went into the bathroom to clean up and when I came out, cold, distant Ranger was back again. Why wasn't I surprised?
 
"Tank will be up in a minute to take you back to Morelli," he said like nothing had happened. "And just a reminder, Stephanie, I didn't make the deal with you. I made it with Morelli … his freedom in exchange for his woman. It's up to him whether or not to accept it. If he does, then I'll expect you to pay my price. Not before." He slipped on his jacket and headed for the door. "Oh, and anything else that might happen between us," he added, "I'll consider a free sample." And he walked out of the apartment.

 
The son of a *****!
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

I have to take a break, too much excitement,back in a few minutes.